The Great Recession was characterized by layoffs, pay freezes, and spending cuts, but one part of Corporate America managed to dodge slashed budgets and even see considerable growth in the economic downturn: wellness programs. In 2005, 27% of companies offered wellness programs to employees; in 2011, that number rose to 44% and in 2013, more than 90% of companies offered a health improvement program for their workers (Fidelity and National Business Group, 2/20/14). Wellness programs have grown into a $6 billion industry, and Fidelity estimates that spending on these plans will increase by 15% this year.
Although growing rapidly, wellness programs are a relatively new addition to benefits packages, and a consensus on whether they merit the cost has not been reached. One study from Harvard found that for the 36 large companies they analyzed, company medical costs fell by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs (Harvard Business Review, 2/21/14). Academy Health published research on PepsiCo's wellness program, the Healthy Living Program, which examined the plan for seven years after its introduction in 2003 – the longest study of a wellness initiative. The report found that the program did reduce health care costs; however, costs savings took three years to materialize and the bulk of the savings came from disease management, which targets helping employees with chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, not from lifestyle management, which focuses on nutrition, fitness, and smoking cessation (Academy Healthy, 2/26/14).
Recently, corporate wellness programs have started going digital to track the progress of employee health goals that qualify them for incentives. Many companies issue laptops and cell phones to their employees, but now some businesses have started giving staff wearable fitness devices to more efficiently measure an employee's health, including nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns. Fitbit, Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up bands, and a variety of other gadgets are starting to become common apparel in the workplace. ABI Research estimates that within the next five years, more than 13 million wearable devices will be incorporated into wellness plans (ABI Research, 10/13).
James Park, CEO of Fitbit, says corporate programs are the fastest-growing part of his business; Fitbit now works with 30 Fortune 500 companies to integrate wearable technology into their wellness agendas. BPAmerica introduced company-issued Fitbits last year as part of its program. According to BP, 90% of employees participate in the voluntary health-initiative, and the technology has improved the morale and health of the employees as well as lowering the insurance rates for the company and for individuals. BP is not the only company encouraging individuals (and management) to track their health. The multinational software company Autodesk also introduced wearable technology into their health program and had more than 50% of employees opt to use the devices. Smaller companies are also starting to introduce wearable gadgets as an avenue to promote health as well as improve the company culture. Buffer, a start-up social media firm, gives Jawbone Up devices to all of its employees, and Biosyntrx employees in Colorado come daily armed with a Fitbit on their wrist.
Wearable devices that track health not only allow employees to monitor their activity, food, and sleep patterns, but also inspire friendly competition between staff to meet their goals. Employees at Bates College, which issues Fitbits to workers, started to see who could park furthest away from the office to get the most activity points for their "Ready, Set, Go" competition, even during a harsh New England winter.
Wearable technology allows for greater data accuracy, tracks progress and behavior changes, and can also boost social connection. But some worry what will happen to the health data compiled by a wearable device. Is the data owned by the employee or by the company? Can it be sold or shared with third parties? How does the data collected relate to HIPAA? Would the results have any bearing on an employee's performance review? As a new evolution in corporate wellness programs, the merits of wearable tech in the workplace are still uncertain and the questions that their data collection raises also have yet to be answered.
Readers, would you want your company to offer a wearable fitness device? Why or why not? Answer our reader question this week and we'll send you a free pedometer to make sure you're getting your 10,000 steps a day!